In association with Instituto do Turismo de Portuagal

Évora: A city of ancient streets and inspiring architecture


WHERE?

Tiny Évora, peeking out from behind thick medieval walls, is Portugal's best-preserved and most enjoyable inland city. Its Roman and Moorish roots are highly visible, from the beautifully conserved Roman Temple of Diana, to its tangle of ancient alleys rising steeply towards the city centre. The city reached its golden age in the 15th century, when it became the residence of Portuguese kings - their palaces and churches today provide a polished feel, helped by impressive restoration programmes since Évora made the Unesco World Heritage list in 1986.

Its historical role as capital of Portugal's agricultural heartland continues today, with daily fruit and vegetable markets and a peaceful, rural atmosphere. During term time, the pace quickens with the arrival of several thousand students, while summer attracts the inevitable busloads of tourists.

Although Évora's small airport does not have flights from Britain, Lisbon is just 90 minutes' drive away, and Faro is just two-and-a-half hours distant. Hiring a car is advisable for exploring the Alentejo, but the city itself is easily walkable (and driving around the muddling one-way system within the city walls is best avoided). TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com) has three daily flights from Heathrow and two from Gatwick, with prices from £100 return. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has four daily flights from Heathrow, from £103 return. Easyjet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com) has a daily flight from Luton, costing from £57 return. Monarch (08700 405 040, flymonarch.com) has two flights daily from Gatwick, costing from £89 return.

One of the best places to stay is the Pousada dos Lóios (00 351 266 730 070; www.pousadas.pt), in prime position next to the Roman temple. Set in a monastery founded in 1485, the monks' cells have been converted into 36 comfortable guestrooms, centered on peaceful cloisters filled with orange trees. Even if you don't stay here, you can still have a snoop around the vaulted, frescoed corridors if you visit the bar or have a meal in the excellent restaurant. Doubles cost from €215 (£155), including breakfast.

A good family alternative is the Hotel da Cartuxa (00 351 266 739 300; www.hoteldacartuxa.com), a medium-sized hotel next to the city walls, with spacious lawns surrounding a large outdoor pool. The rooms have a countryside feel, with terracotta floors and wooden furniture, and there's a decent restaurant overlooking the gardens. Rooms cost from €123 (£87), including breakfast.

The tourist office is on central Praça do Giraldo (00 351 266 730 030; www.cm-evora.pt), daily 9am-6pm (7pm in summer).

WHY?

Évora is the quintessential Portuguese provincial city: laid-back and small enough to happily potter about on foot, but with a rich variety of sights which merit several days' exploration. The churches, palaces and museums can easily fill a weekend, but the real appeal here is getting lost in the bewildering maze of Moorish cobbled streets which radiate out towards the hefty city walls, broken up by wide squares, sun- dappled parks and sudden glimpses of the surrounding countryside.

Its central role in the agricultural area of Alentejo means that regional food is a big draw, be it in the mounds of cheeses, sausages and fresh fruit and veg at the city markets, or in the local cuisine celebrated in the wide choice of restaurants. Évora also has a strong café society feel, with everyone from trendy students to black-clad octogenarians descending on the plethora of tiny cafés for coffee and cakes every afternoon.

WHAT?

Start at the city's centrepiece, the Templo Romano, Portugal's best-preserved Roman temple, in the heart of the old town. At one end is a small formal garden, the Jardim Diana, with pretty views over a Roman aqueduct and a muddle of white-washed houses.

Next to the temple is the delightful Lóios church, founded in 1485 and completely restored in the 1950s, with a beautiful selection of 16th-century azulejos, the typically Portuguese blue-and-white tiles, covering the walls and off-set by an extravagant gilded altar. Entrance is €3 (£2.10), or €5 (£3.50) including entry to the Cadaval Palace next door, a cool, high-ceilinged residence filled with period furniture and paintings.

Also on the square is the Museum Municipal, closed for restoration at time of writing, but housing a collection of Portuguese and Flemish paintings from the 16th century. Round the corner is the Romanesque-gothic cathedral, a rather dark and dour construction after the colourful Lóios church, but with an interesting museum (€2/£1.40) housing riches such as silver crosses studded with precious stones, and an ivory Madonna dating from the 15th century.

From here, it's a quick stroll westwards to get to the most enjoyable square in town, Praça do Giraldo, a cobbled expanse flanked by impressive 16th-century palaces, townhouses and the gleaming church of St Antão. At dusk, locals throng the outdoor tables on the cobbles for a pre-dinner drink overlooking the Henriquina fountain. A number of cafés ring the square, and are great for stopping off for a quick bica (shot of espresso) and queijadas (little cheesecakes).

West of the square, the Moorish alleys tumble down the hill towards the city walls. Rua dos Mercadores has a good choice of restaurants, with several tiny eateries crammed into vaulted cellars, serving Alentejo cuisine.

To the south is the gruesome Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones (€1/70p), located in the church of St Francisco. As the name suggests, this chapel is decked out entirely with the bones of thousands of 15th- and 16th-century monks. Skulls, bones and vertebrae create ghastly patterns along the walls and pillars, and the ceiling is painted with leering cherubs and many skull and crossbones.

Rejoin the living across the square by the church at the bustling Mercado Municipal, where you can pick up picnic ingredients such as local bread, sausages and cheeses to munch on in the pretty public gardens behind.

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